Beauty Pageants & Bible Stories

A former Navy reservist killed 12 and then turned the gun on himself yesterday, so why on earth am I still  blogging about racist comments directed at Miss America 2013 Nina Davuluri?

Because even things that don’t seem to matter can give me an opportunity to pause, learn, reflect, and apply to life. And everything I learned about beauty pageants I learned from the Bible before I watched my first Miss America pageant.

Felt-board Queen Esther became queen because her predecessor, Queen Vashti, refused her very drunk husband’s order to display her beauty to all the people, despite the fact that she was busy doing her own thing (Esther 1:11). King Xerxes and his wingmen/wise men decide she must be punished because if the queen can refuse to prance around in front of his drunk highness and his drunk friends then all women in the kingdom would assume they too could refuse their drunk husband’s requests. In order to put all women back in their place, a proclamation announcing the queen would be replaced and that every man should be ruler over his household (Esther 1:22) is sent to the entire kingdom “to each province in its own script and to each people in their own language”.

Esther becomes queen because she is beautiful and because she keeps her family background and nationality a secret. I don’t know what the Persian beauty standards were at the time, but Esther isn’t Persian. She is Jewish, and she hides it. And because she is beautiful she is rewarded. Sort of.

She wasn’t crowned Miss America. Miss America gets scholarship money, a national platform for a year for the cause of her choice, and the support and scorn of a country that worships and destroys all forms of beauty. Esther was crowned queen in title with no power, no platform. Would it be too crude to say she was a sex slave who was called into the king’s presence whenever it pleased him to see her? Or should I write “see” her? The kind had a type – beautiful virgins – and he liked to keep several around and name one queen. One day it’s Vashti, and then the next it’s Esther. It’s a man’s world, and it’s rolling with  beautiful women.

And that was part of the lesson I learned growing up – Queen Esther and Queen Vashti were beautiful, and there is a great deal of power and danger in that. You are set apart if you are beautiful. You are desirable if you are beautiful. And sometimes you have to hide who you really are to be considered beautiful. And then I learned all of that from the world around me, except that there were too many things I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t hide my “almond eyes” or flat nose. I couldn’t hide my un-American last name or the smells from my home. I couldn’t hide my brown hair and brown eyes. And as a little girl I played with dolls and watched beauty pageants – faces that never, ever looked like me or my mother or sister or aunt or anyone in my family. I was a chink and a gook and a jap. I was told to back to China, Japan, Viet Nam, but never Korea because most of my classmates had not yet learned of the Korean conflict. Even in high school I heard those words coupled with other profanity and saw words written on posters when I ran for class president. Some things you never forget because it’s important to remember. Kids are kids, but kids grow up to be adults to are examples to others…

Fortunately God does a lot of redeeming in my story and in Esther’s story. For Esther to find real power in her God-given identity she has to claim what she has hidden and denied. Her uncle, who once told her to hide her identity as a Jew asks Esther to use whatever power and access she has to speak out for her people, to speak out for what is right. Her uncle never says he was wrong, but he is asking to behave differently. She has to side with her people who are under threat of genocide, by defying the rules. She must risk death by approaching the king without being invited and hope he welcomes her, recognizes her (because it’s been more than a month since the king has seen this particular queen). She finds her voice, her identity, her power, and she speaks out against genocide, against the racist hate mongering, and she does it with strength and conviction and grace.

I’m still writing about the racist comments that may have disappeared in the constant flow of tweets, FB statuses and 24-7 news outlets because the Miss America pageant, as outdated, bizarre and sexist as it seems, the idea is as old as time. It’s as irrelevant and sexist as it relevant and sexist, which is to say I have no idea how God might redeem the Miss America pageant, but it’s not beyond God to do such a crazy thing. I’m not particularly fond of nor a fan of the pageant, but honestly if I could have won thousands of dollars in scholarship money because of my beauty I would not have thumbed my nose at that chance. And according to a PBS documentary on the Miss America pageant, someone like me or Ms. Davuluri or Vanessa Williams couldn’t have participated in the pageant in its heyday anyway.

But now we are a post-racial society with a lame duck, second term African American president and a Miss America of Indian descent.

The racist comments thrown at a beauty pageant winner matter because even if the laws say we belong, our neighbors, the ones I as a Christian am supposed to love, are spewing hate. My neighbors, who may even claim faith in the same God and Jesus I do, are the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbors, of people who are using violent, ugly, racist language to remind me and millions of other Americans we don’t belong, are not welcome, are less than. Some of my neighbors are wondering why I’m spending so much time on Miss America when 12 people lost their lives in a shooting in Washington, DC.

It’s not either or.

You may not be on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist. There are racist tweets about the shooting in DC just like there were about the new Miss America. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the shooting and hope, “Please, don’t let the gunman be White.”? (If you don’t understand the question, just trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who were hoping that the gunman wasn’t Black, Brown or Yellow.) The gunman, the murderer? He was Black. Did you hold your breath when you heard about the new Miss America and think, “It won’t be long before the racist comments hit the airwaves.”? (Are you thinking, “Why would anyone think that?” Trust me. There were plenty of Americans, Christian and not, who knew this racist stuff was going to happen.) The pageant winner? She is Brown. You can be the beauty or the beast but in America neither is safe from the vicious words and hearts of some of my racist neighbors. You can’t win.

But this isn’t about winning anymore than Esther’s story is about winning. What I also learned in the Bible is that God invites the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances to do the most unlikely things. So who knows what is to become of the Miss America pageant or Twitter or who will be the heroes and the villains in the next tragedy. Esther’s story is about speaking truth, stepping out in faith, fighting for justice, finding your voice, leaning on others, owning your power and space, even if you think it’s crazy, or not your place, or something you’re really not interested in getting involved in right now because it isn’t your thing like risking your life or your reputation or your time on something as little as few hateful, vicious words written in English about someone who is my neighbor.

The Balancing Act

Hollywood isn’t real life, but when real life (mine and the lives of the actors) and Hollywood converge it is great fodder for thinking and conversation. Peter and I can’t stop talking about last night’s date night movie, “Up in the Air”, starring Vera Farmiga and George Clooney.

IMBD’s movie description: With a job that has him traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham leads an empty life out of a suitcase, until his company does the unexpected: ground him.

My oversimplified movie description: Ryan Bingham has a midlife crisis.

But I’m not so focused on Ryan Bingham (that’s for another post). What I am still thinking about is how I was drawn to Alex Goran, played by real-life mom and wife Vera Farmiga. Alex is a strong, confident, beautiful, sexy (but not slutty, for the most part), successful, intelligent business woman whose opening exchange with Ryan had me and Peter talking about power dynamics into the wee hours of the morning. (Peter and I really are a fun couple.)

Women have a different balancing act than men, especially in the corporate world, in terms of how they communicate through their words, body language and even the way they dress and carry their sexuality. Times are changing, but Equal Pay Day, when women finally catch up to what men earned the year before still isn’t until April 10, 2010. We’ve come a long way, but it’s still not a level playing field, which is in part why the length of the skirt, firmness of the handshake and awareness of the hair flipping matters. You  may not agree with the rules, but there are rules. Changing them means knowing them first.

As a Christian woman who works in the tension of a management position in a Christian missions organization, my concerns and thoughts on “dressing for success” can either be dismissed as being superficial and too concerned with “the world” or hijacked by important and related conversations about women’s roles, marriage and parenting (and then get into the messier conversations about whether or not a mom should get a paycheck for her work, whether or not a woman can lead other men over the age of 18, whether or not women can be women without tempting men) while ignoring the obvious truths. God gave all of us, men and women, more than one sense in which we interact with the world and, therefore, people. Sight gives us literal lenses through which we make judgments and assumptions. Hearing allows us to interpret tone and volume and pace. Even smells, touch and taste play into the ways we interact with one another and how that affects success and effectiveness. Again, understanding and awareness is not the same as agreement with said rules.

Successful women are often portrayed in both Hollywood and real life as the “byatch”. The stereotypes are easy: successful women essentially act like men but happen to have breasts or they are women who have used their breasts to gain access. Even in scripture we have to wrestle and understand the cultural norms and stereotypes of women as we interact with Ruth and Naomi, Queen Esther and even Mary the mother of Jesus along with the unnamed sinful woman and the woman at the well. When Bible teachers and trainers are asked to teach on leadership, where do they turn? I turn to those women.

I digress.

The reality is a balancing act of trying to embrace our leadership, our femininity, our voice alone and alongside men. Personally I struggle and am confused when colleagues describe me as being “motherly” and describe other male colleagues as “pastoral”. I don’t want to be overly vain and concerned about my appearance but I’m not going to pretend that my appearance doesn’t matter to others or myself.

Which is why I found Alex as a character fascinating. Alex, from what little we know, is neither a man with breasts or a “byatch”. When the younger female character Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick, is in crisis Alex listens and speaks frankly without cattiness. Alex is a woman who has, in some sense, arrived in the corporate world and in midlife, unlike the younger Natalie. Alex was a woman comfortable with her sexuality, success and choices and Natalie was still struggling to figure out what her choices would be, how she would view success and how her gender would play into those choices.

Twenty years ago I was Natalie, and I suspect I would not have resonated with the movie or the characters in the same way, which is why I say go watch “Up in the Air”. Hollywood gave me 109 minutes of entertainment and lots about reality – past, present and future – to think about.

To Dye or Not to Dye and Questions About Aging Gracefully

I had never noticed them before. I’m sure I would have noticed them if they had been there just a few weeks ago. Without a doubt these were new, unwelcomed and unwanted – several white hairs peeking through my fashionably coiffed look. Maybe they were lost and on their way to someone else?

I had no problem with turning 30. By the time I celebrated my 30th I had been married 7 years, had two children and made a career change. It seemed right.

Turning 40. Well, I’m having a tougher time with that because friends who are telling me not to worry because 40 is the new 30 also had a tough time and are probably in denial as well. I don’t feel like I’m falling apart, but the warning signs are there. The knees actually call an audible when I’m headed up and down the stairs. Late nights require more and more recovery time. And I’m just waiting for the day when the words on the page make me wonder if it’s a lighting issue or if the copy is actually blurry.

But seeing those white hairs in the midst of my brown roots and reddish dyed hair made me stop to think about aging and what it means to age gracefully. So much of what I imagined has been internal – a growing and deep winsome wisdom akin to Erma Bombeck and Madeleine L’Engle mixed in with a touch of Obi Wan.

Our culture’s emphasis on external beauty is extremely unforgiving and unfair, especially but not exclusively to women (those “Just For Men” beard and mustache dye kit commercials are horrible). But I think we can agree that the scales are tipped against women more often than not. An older man on television communicates trustworthiness. An older woman on television is Betty White in a commercial. HD technology makes certain TV shows and movies come to life, but it has also meant that then evening newscasters will never look quite as glamourous. A nip and tuck or a chemical peel to the face in HD – well, you get my point.

But the crazy tension I find myself in is that Asian culture honors its elders. We have a thing about age. Now, I realize that Asia proper is changing and, the way I see it, not all for good. Women in parts of Asia have a thing for cosmetic surgery and skin lightening creams, and the market for men is increasing as well. Eyelid surgery. Nose surgery. Chin implants. Nothing is off limits. But there is still a reverence that is reserved for our elders, and that value came in the hearts and souls of Asian immigrants. When my extended family and I sit down for a meal, my parents or father-in-law will always be seated and served first. On New Year’s Day we bow to them, acknowledging their place and the roads they continue to pave for us. We defer to them.

Aging in the Asian American community brings a special status of honoring and responsibility. Next week I head off to our national Asian American staff conference and what I hear over and over again is that I am one of the senior Asian American staff. Instead of waiting for an invitation to lead we are extending the invitations. Living in the tension of Asian and American I’m finding that with age comes experience and opportunity.

What does it mean to age gracefully? So much of my life was drawn out between absolutes – Christians do this and not that. Success looks like this and not that. Children should be like this and not that. Americans do this, but Koreans do that. I suppose that is why my knee-jerk reaction is to make a list of do’s and don’ts. Aging gracefully means letting my hair grow out in shades of gray and white and redirect my DIY hair dyeing skills to my daughter’s locks. Maybe? Maybe not?

Image is Everything

Do you care about what others think of you?

I do. Sometimes I don’t care at all because I’m at the gym to get my cardio done and mascara and my version of cardio don’t mix well. Sometimes I care too much (like during junior high and high school, and when I’m around a group of people I don’t know well). Maybe it was all that great training I got in high school – poms, speech team, student council and the school newspaper. You learn about image and presenting yourself well. You learn about diction, eye contact and presence. You learn that even if you don’t care what other people think of you those people are forming opinions about you.

This weekend I’m headed off to Ohio to spend the weekend with some amazing InterVarsity students and staff to talk with and learn from one another about God, Jesus, faith, culture, ethnicity and identity. I cannot say this enough. I love my job.

We will be talking about image – what we think of ourselves and perhaps what others think of us. My hope is that we will be honest with ourselves and with one another.

So I’ll be honest. The worst part of public speaking isn’t the public speaking (even if it can feel as vulnerable as standing on stage with nothing on but your underwear). It’s packing for speaking gigs. Yup. Stupid? Yes. No. Maybe. Packing unnerves me because I want to project just the right vibe – accessible, warm, engaging, cool, but not trying-too-hard-to-be-cool cool, fashionable but not in a materialistic way, intelligent, prepared and wise but not old. That is a lot of for an outfit to do, right? And knowing that about myself makes me feel vain and foolish.

Where is the middle or appropriate ground when dealing with the way we look and present ourselves? I feel like it’s particularly dicey for women, and there additional issues for women of color. What do you worry about when it comes to your image and where or how do you draw the line?

The Cost of Permanent Vanity

I’m vain. 

I tend to be an emotional and emotive person. I cry. Lots. A mentor once told me that 1.) she had never met anyone who cried as much as I did, and 2.) that my free-flowing tears for my own pain and that of others gave people permission to cry as well.

Which is why I got my tattoos – permanent eyeliner.

Yes, it hurt. A lot. But repetitive needle pokes on my eyelids were nothing compared to childbirth with no pain meds and then nearly bleeding to death. It’s all relative.

But I must say that spending a few hundred dollars to permanently “apply” eyeliner made me wrestle a bit with my own vanity, my values, my theology of makeup if you will. There are enough images in the media to argue away most everything I do in the morning to get ready for the day. Did I really want to permanently attach myself to a standard of beauty?

Buying a trendy piece of clothing is one thing. Buying a bottle of nail polish seems like a much lower level of commitment. Even hair color fades, and now the gray hairs are insisting on equal time as the drugstore box red #660. But a tattoo?

There have been plenty of beauty/vanity missteps. Um. 1988-1995 had several bad perms, cuts, close encounters with hairspray and gel, heavy handed makeup and MIA tweezers. (Seriously, why didn’t anyone tell me?!)

I tend to over-agonize about a lot of things. I have this tiny problem. I want to do the right thing the right way, and my moral compass tries to weigh many things simultaneously. Somehow I was able to make the decision and do it.

I don’t remember how long the tattoos took. The guy was meticulous, making sure the lines were even, the color just right. But immediately after the procedure, which sounded a little like being at the dentist’s office, I would have to describe it by paraphrasing a line out of “Good Hair”: I didn’t feel as beautiful as I thought I would. My eyes were puffy and then scabby. I looked as if I had been crying for days and then covered my eyes in antibacterial ointment.

Fortunately for me, after molting for a week my vanity had paid off.

A friend of mine confessed (and I use that word because that’s what it feels like sometimes when we share our deepest, most vain moments) she was curious about dyeing eyelashes. I’ve known other women who have lighter colored hair mention their addiction to mascara. We all have that one beauty product we’ve sold our souls to. Without it we feel washed out, unkempt, unfinished.

I don’t regret the permanent eyeliner, but it’s definitely a decision that makes me stop and think every day about how God sees me. God meets me everyday in the mirror when I skip the eyeliner and go straight for the lipgloss. Where in your vanity does God  me you?

What in the World?!? – Oprah, Shame on You

I know that I need to lighten up and not take life so seriously. I know that I need to pick and choose my battles. I know that in the grand scheme of things this is really not a big deal.

But it is annoying. I couldn’t believe Oprah was doing the Asian language gibberish thing on her show this morning.

I was watching Oprah this morning – a show on standards of beauty around the world. I was actually laughing at myself for watching the show while doing my 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical at the gym. There was a moment of dissonance and irony for me. Anyway, the show was highlighting how women all over the world define beauty and about the things they do to beautify themselves.

The segment I’m referring to was on Japanese women and how they value smooth porcelain-like skin. Oprah held up a sample tube of a popular whitening cream, looked at the name and because Oprah doesn’t read kana or kanji she made up what she thought was an “Asian” sounding series of sounds. NOOOOO! Argh. The audience laughed. The Japanese woman who was on live feed through Skype giggled and corrected Oprah and correctly pronounced the name of the product. Oprah then went on to say, “That’s what I said.”


There were good lessons to be learned because even as the audience (and I include myself in that generic label) could laugh or look in horror at what other women will do to achieve their culture’s standard of beauty we all know our own dirty little secrets. The show was actually something I could see using as a springboard for cross-cultural conversations about beauty, race, ethnicity, gender and class. The reporter, Mara Schiavocampo, talks about how she was surprised to learn that Asian women straighten their hair (long, black, straight hair = Asian/Asian American woman stereotype). One segment touched on hair weaves – how much American women will pay to have real hair weaves, how some some of that hair comes from women who sacrifice their hair to temple gods, and how some of those women live in poverty. 

Segment after segment there were women from around the world – Iran, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia – who would look right into the camera and SPEAK IN ENGLISH to tell Oprah and her audience about their beauty secrets. So why couldn’t Oprah look in the camera and just say, “Thank you.”?

Nope. Oprah ended that particular segment just making noise. I’ll just end my morning by writing The Oprah Show a comment:

Dear Oprah, I watched your show this morning on beauty standards from around the world. For the most part, I enjoyed the show.

I was, however, disappointed at your attempt to read Japanese. I realize that in the grand scheme of things, one seemingly light-hearted moment as you made “Asian” sounds instead of correctly pronouncing the name of the beauty product you were holding is not a big deal.

However, many of the women interviewed for the show sincerely wanted to show your audience how other women from around the world define beauty and strive to achieve it. Many of those women spoke with great pride and in English, not once making fun of Americans and the crazy things we use or do in the name of beauty.

There were good lessons to be learned about stereotypes (your guest reporter mentioned how surprised she was to learn Asian women straighten their hair) and about class (women who can get plastic surgery with payment plans and Indian women getting $2 for their “dead hair” v. women who pay thousands to have “live hair” woven onto their heads).

But, I found that brief moment where you and then your audience laughed at your version of “Japanese” was disrespectful and disappointing.

Sincerely, Kathy Khang

OK, the endorphin rush is over.


There has been some buzz and some media coverage about 9-year-old Lin Miaoke being selected to “sing” during the opening ceremonies in Beijing. They call her the “smiling angel”, but apparently her voice wasn’t as angelic as her face so they dubbed over her voice with that of Yang Peiyi.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to respond. There was some chatter on various blogs and amongst television commentators about the Communist Party’s decision to present a “flawless image”, the pressure for perfection, the “fake” performance.

It was a bit funny to me. It’s easy to point fingers at China and then say how lip-synching (and CGI fireworks) mar the overall quality and impact of the opening ceremonies. Does that mean the opening ceremonies weren’t perfect? 

But then here in America we have “America’s Next Top Model” and “Make Me a Supermodel”, Teen Glamour and Teen Cosmo, etc. Seriously, is it so crazy to believe that the Communists would share the Western world’s obsession with beauty and perfection? I don’t live in a country where party leaders decide what is acceptable in terms of beauty, but I do live in a country where the freedom to choose still leaves women always falling short and in the endless pursuit of perfection.

It’s sad, don’t you think?